RICHMOND, Va. — Most students who graduated from Virginia’s public colleges and universities last year left not only with a degree but also with a financial burden: an average student loan debt of about $30,000.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, once among Virginia’s most affordable institutions, students owed an average of about $29,000, according to the state’s most recent statistics. As college and university tuition continues to rise, new laws that take effect this summer aim to help students get a grip on how much they owe.
Tuition increases have become the norm as decreases in state funding have pushed universities to boost prices to cover costs. These tuition hikes coincide with statewide trends in higher education costs and student loan debt.
At VCU, officials are proposing an increase of $844, or 6.4 percent, in tuition and mandatory fees for the coming academic year as part of the 2018-19 budget, said Karol Kain Gray, vice president of finance and budget.
Other institutions — among them Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia and the College William & Mary — also are raising tuition. Tech approved a 2.9 percent hike in tuition and mandatory fees, U.Va. adopted a 2.5 percent increase in tuition and William & Mary enacted a 6.5 percent rise in tuition.
From 2007 to 2017, college tuition and fees in Virginia have increased each year by an average of $578, or 6 percent. During the decade, VCU’s tuition and fees have increased annually by an average of $743, or 8.4 percent.
This year, in-state undergraduate students at VCU paid $13,624 in tuition and mandatory fees. That was the fifth-highest amount among Virginia’s 15 four-year public colleges and universities. VCU’s tuition has more than doubled — it’s up 120 percent — since the 2007-08 school year. Back then, in-state undergraduates at VCU paid $6,196 — the fifth-lowest amount in Virginia.
At a recent forum hosted by the VCU Student Government Association, Gray outlined the university’s budget goals and explained how the school uses its funds and why it needs a tuition increase. About 40 people attended the session, including students, staff and members of the Board of Visitors.
For VCU, the 6.4 percent increase is part of a $33 million request to fund its “highest priority” needs and other academic and administrative priorities. Some of the high-priority needs, according to Gray, are raises for teaching and research faculty and adjuncts, and additional need- and merit-based financial aid for undergraduates.
VCU’s average instructor salary of $49,000 is lower than other four-year institutions in Virginia. Tech, U.Va., George Mason University and William & Mary have average instructor salaries between $53,600 and $63,700, according to the American Association of University Professors 2016-17 report on university salaries.
“We have to start looking at where we’re going and at having reasonable increases to support the things we deserve to have,” Gray said. “This hurts our ranking, it hurts our [faculty] retention and it’s a morale issue.”
Tripp Wiggins, an 18-year-old VCU freshman, said he came to the forum looking for fiscal transparency from the university. He left feeling like there wasn’t enough information about why VCU is relying on tuition as its primary source of revenue.
“I feel like I understand how the funds are being managed,” Wiggins said. “But I still don’t have a clear understanding why the burden [of education costs] is going towards student tuition when there are other ways of getting revenue.”
From a Public Good to a Private Benefit?
In Virginia, the state shares the cost of education with students by providing general funds to universities. Universities then set tuition based on how much state funding they will receive. This educational and general fund is used to finance faculty salaries, financial aid and improvements to classrooms and academic buildings.
In 2004, Virginia set a cost-sharing goal: The state would cover 67 percent of the educational cost, and students would cover the remaining 33 percent through tuition. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
According to the 2017-18 tuition and fees report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, students are paying for 53 percent of the cost of their education, with the state picking up 47 percent.
Changes in state funding and the economy have pushed universities to increase tuition and fees to maintain their academic standards and growth, officials say.
At the VCU budget forum, Dr. Charles Klink, senior vice provost for student affairs, said this represented a shift in the perception of higher education overall.
“At one point people saw higher education as a public good. Now it seems more like a private benefit,” Klink said.
For students paying for their education through loans, lawmakers in the most recent General Assembly session passed new laws to protect borrowers from drowning in debt.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, introduced legislation that would help students manage their federal loans, while Del. Marcia “Cia” Price, D-Newport News, sponsored a bill to create a student loan ombudsman. Both bills have been signed by Gov. Ralph Northam and will take effect July 1.
Obenshain’s bill, SB 568, requires public colleges and universities to provide students with an annual statement about their federal loans. This statement includes how much money they have borrowed so far, the potential amount they will owe and estimated monthly payments.
“I want to ensure that college students know how much they are actually borrowing and how much it will cost them in interest so that hopefully we can help get under control the overwhelming debt that our students often face upon graduation,” Obenshain said.
Price’s bill, HB 1138, created a state student loan ombudsman within SCHEV. According to the bill summary, this office is will be an advocate for borrowers by helping them understand their rights and responsibilities under their loan. The office also will review and attempt to resolve complaints from borrowers.
There are other methods universities can use to keep tuition hikes low while maintaining growth. Gray said one way is increasing the number of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition.
At VCU, for example, 10 percent of students are from out of state, according to SCHEV reports. Tech and U.Va. enroll about 30 percent from outside Virginia.